We all know the commonly-told story. It goes something like this: The Pilgrims came to America seeking religious freedom. Times were tough that first year. The Native Americans helped the Pilgrims learn to cultivate the land. The Pilgrims invited everyone over for a big Thanksgiving feast. Everybody lived happily ever after. Today we gather with family and friends to celebrate, remember, and give thanks.
1. Most of the colonists on the Mayflower were not Pilgrims.
“Just over a hundred colonists sailed from England on the Mayflower in September 1620. Of these, only forty-one were Pilgrims, from Leyden, Holland; eighteen were indentured servants, bound as slaves for seven years to their masters; and the others were largely Anglicans from England, seeking economic opportunity in the New World.” - What Really Happened at Plymouth, Murray Rothbard
2. Thanksgiving, as we have come to know it, is based historically on an amalgamation of the 1621 meeting between the colonists and the Native Americans and a celebration of the Pequot massacre.
We are told the celebration of Thanksgiving can be traced back to 1621, when Governor William Bradford invited the neighboring Wampanoag Indians to a feast in celebration of the good harvest.
The Pilgrims did have a feast to celebrate the harvest, but it was not repeated again until years later. It certainly was not the beginning of a Thanksgiving tradition. In fact, the Pilgrims didn’t even call the feast Thanksgiving. That would come a decade and a half later.
1621 was indeed a very difficult year for the Plymouth colony. Over half of the colonists were dead by the end of the first winter. The harvest was not the beginning of better times. Food was scarce for several more years in Plymouth (we will learn why a little further down).
The first official "Day of Thanksgiving" was actually proclaimed in 1637 by Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor, John Winthrop. What is not typically taught is that the annual “Thanksgiving” festivities we have come to know and love have origins in the celebration of the Pequot Massacre.
In May of 1637, a group of well-armed English settlers, along with Narragansett and Mohegan allies, surrounded the Pequot village, set it on fire, and slaughtered the inhabitants.
Winthrop issued a proclamation stating: "A day of Thanksgiving, thanking God that they had eliminated over 700 men, women and children….This day forth shall be a day of celebration and thanksgiving for subduing the Pequots."
The annual “thanksgiving” became a regular tradition after the Pequot Massacre in 1637. Most Americans think about Thanksgiving as being a symbol of colonists and Native Americans working together in peaceful cooperation. However, now that we know the other side of the story, it is easy to understand why many American Indians today call Thanksgiving a "Day of Mourning".
3. The Plymouth Colony was originally organized as communist order, and nearly perished because of it.
“A major reason for the persistent hardships, for the "starving time," in Plymouth as before in Jamestown, was the communism imposed by the company. In this alliance, each adult settler was granted a share in the joint-stock company, and each investment of 10 pounds also received a share. At the end of seven years, the accumulated earnings were to be divided among the shareholders. Until that division, as in the original Virginia settlement, the company decreed a communistic system of production, with each settler contributing his all to the common store and each drawing his needs from it — again, a system of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs." - What Really Happened at Plymouth, Murray Rothbard
Governor William Bradford, far from an individualist or supporter of free-markets, wrote that the taking away of private property and bringing the harvest into the commons for distribution based on need “…was found to breed much confusion and discontent and retard much employment that would have been to their benefit and comfort. For the young men, that were most able and fit for labour and service, did repine that they should spend their time and strength to work for other men's wives and children without any recompense.” - William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620–47, New York: Knopf, 1952, pp. 120–21.)
By 1623, Bradford and the colonists were forced to abandon this communal arrangement. Governor Bradford decided to allocate a parcel of land for each household for private ownership. He told them “…they could keep what they produced, or trade it away as they saw fit.”
In other words, Bradford unleashed the colonists from the chains of the communist economic system and instituted a system of private property.
Richard J. Maybury, in The Great Thanksgiving Hoax, writes that: “The harvest of 1623 was different. Suddenly, "instead of famine now God gave them plenty," Bradford wrote, "and the face of things was changed, to the rejoicing of the hearts of many, for which they blessed God." Thereafter, he wrote, "any general want or famine hath not been amongst them since to this day." In fact, in 1624, so much food was produced that the colonists were able to begin exporting corn.”
4) Why is Thanksgiving celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November?
On October 3, 1789, President George Washington issued a proclamation naming Thursday, November 26, 1789, as an official holiday of “sincere and humble thanks.”
From Washington until Lincoln, the date that Thanksgiving was observed varied, but the last Thursday in November was customary in most U.S. states. In 1863, Lincoln proclaimed the date to be the final Thursday in November in an attempt to foster unity between the states.
In 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the holiday to the third Thursday of November to lengthen the Christmas shopping season in hopes of boosting the economy. (We know that these Keynesian ploys don’t actually do anything to generate wealth but merely shift consumption patterns).
Anyway, this move set off a national debate and on December 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress changing Thanksgiving Day to the fourth Thursday.
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday (in close competition with Secession Day on July 4th). It is a day of joyous reflection about all we have to be thankful for. I love that I am able to spend the day enjoying delicious food and spending time with my family.
I think we can still learn much from the Pilgrims’ early lessons about the merits of economic freedom. As Governor Bradford came to understand: Incentives matter!
Finally, I also took a few minutes today to somberly reflect on the fact that the new colonists committed horrendous acts of genocide against the human beings that had settled the New World long before the Europeans.